Just a fly-by in a desperate attempt to keep to the twice-a-week schedule I’ve set myself for these Women’s History Month posts.

This post is basically a spin-off of my previous one on unsung female aviators. When I realized I had more pilots than I could discuss in one post and that a few of the women I was looking at took us well out of the pioneer days and into World War II, I decided to separate them out. Separate, but not exactly equal, as we will see.

One of the most impressive women I came across was Jacqueline Cochran, who, among other things, raced competitively against men in the 1930s, worked with Amelia Earhart to open the Bendix transcontinental race to women, and set multiple aviation records. In fact, at the time of her death, Cochran held more altitude, distance, and speed records than any other pilot (male or female) in history.

Vincent Bendix congratulates Jacqueline Cochran after she wins the Bendix Race in 1938.

Before the United States entered World War II, as part of the “Wings for Britain” organization, Cochran became the first woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic. While in Great Britain, she volunteered her services to the war effort, working for the British Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). Enlisting the help of Eleanor Roosevelt, Cochran was a key figure in establishing U.S. programs to train female pilots to undertake domestic aviation jobs and release more male pilots for combat, eventually leading to the formation of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program, which she led beginning in August 1943. These women did all sorts of dangerous tasks, including towing targets for live ammunition target practice, delivering military aircraft to bases, and flying engineering test flights. Amazingly, more than 25,000 women applied for this short-lived program, but the requirements for women were fairly strict and only 1,800 or so were selected for training. With washout rates roughly on par with men, ultimately 1,102 women flew for the WASP and U.S. Army Air Forces. These women flew every aircraft in the USAAF inventory, with overall accident and fatality rates similar to those of male pilots.

Pilots at Lockbourne Army Air Field, members of the Women Air Force Service Pilots program. Pictured from left to right are Frances Green, Peg Kirchner, Ann Waldner and Blanche Osborn.

Despite this service, and unlike the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), the WASPs were not part of the military (although WASP pilots were retroactively granted service status in 1977). Still, Cochran received the Distinguished Service Medal in 1945 and joined the U.S. Air Force Reserve in 1948, retiring as a colonel in 1970. As such, she is likely the first female pilot in the USAF. Not one to be deterred in exploring new forms of aviation, she began flying jets after the war and was the first women to break the sound barrier. Other “female” firsts: Cochran was the first to take off and land on an aircraft carrier, the first to fly a jet on a transatlantic flight, the first to make a blind (instrument) landing, and the first (and only) woman to become president of the Fédération Aéronatique International. She even flew the Goodyear blimp in the early 1960s because why not.

I have found adventure in flying, in world travel, in business, and even close at hand… Adventure is a state of mind—and spirit.

—Jacqueline Cochran

As fascinating as Jacqueline Cochran is, she does represent the world of privilege in that she came to flying on the heels of meeting one of the richest men in the world, Floyd Odlum, who helped her found a cosmetics business in the mid-1930s and who she later married. Perhaps unsurprisingly, pilots accepted for WASP training were often women who had been able to afford to pay for their own flying lessons. (Additionally, due to segregation policies, no African Americans were accepted into the program, although there were two Chinese Americans who served). In the Soviet Union, the situation was somewhat different, although female pilots faced similar discrimination and disbelief from their countrymen.

During their bombing runs, the Night Witches used obsolete bi-planes without guns, radios, or parachutes.

And so we come to the Night Witches, an all-women Soviet bombing regiment and among the first women to ever fly in combat. While I didn’t know of their story prior to the excellent Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast episode on them, I feel like these women are better known than most of the other aviators I looked at (and maybe if I was more of a fan of military history I would have been familiar with them). Much like the WASP program, the creation of the Night Witches is primarily credited to a push by famed aviator and Soviet Air Force navigator Marina Raskova, who convinced Stalin to let her form and train three female aviation regiments, notably the 588th Fighter Aviation Regiment, which would gain fame under the name given to it by the Germans, die Nachthexen.

This regiment flew ridiculously obsolete biplanes made of canvas and wood that had open cockpits but neither radio nor guns. Because of this vulnerability, they only flew night missions, primarily to harass German troops although they also engaged in precision bombing of supply depots and other military targets. Pilots often made multiple bombing runs over the course of a night and each one would eventually fly over eight hundred missions before the war’s end. The most famous Night Witch, Nadia Popova, a Ukrainian who had been flying since the age of fifteen, made a record eighteen runs in one night. The nickname of die Nachthexen, or Night Witches, came from the rustling sound the canvas made as the planes swooped down low to drop their bombs (having previously cut their noisy engines for stealth purposes).

Are you f*cking kidding me? Hollywood, where is my movie of this?

Nadia Popova eyes the camera surrounded by some glorious bad-asses.

To read more about these incredible women:

  • Molly Merryman, Clipped Wings: The Rise and Fall of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) of World War II
  • Anne Noggle, For God, Country and the Thrill of It: Women Airforce Service Pilots During WWII
  • Bruce Myles, Night Witches: The Amazing Story of Russia’s Women Pilots in WWII
  • Anne Noggle, A Dance with Death: Soviet Airwomen in World War II

Podcast episodes:
Stuff You Missed in History Class: Four Flights of Female Aviators
Stuff You Missed in History Class: WASP of WWII, Part 1
Stuff You Missed in History Class: WASP of WWII, Part 2
Stuff You Missed in History Class: The Night Witches

For previous posts in this Women 101 series, click below:
From Abigail Adams to Zenobia
Birds of the Air

For the next post in this series, see Soldiers and Spies in the Civil War.